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Swain brings business training and education center online

After about 18 months of construction, the $1.5 million Swain County Regional Business Education and Training Center is officially open for business, or education, or training for that matter.

“This facility will wear many hats,” said Swain County Commissioner Donnie Dixon at a ribbon-cutting ceremony held last week. “It will be a meeting place. It will be things we probably haven’t even thought of yet.”

The building is filled with various-sized classroom spaces and will allow businesses and organizations to host training or other educational events. Because the county owns the building, the facility can be used for all sorts of different activities or programs that benefit the region.

“This group of commissioners, I was happy to see they understood this is a regional resource,” said Ken Mills, executive director of economic development in Swain County.

Anyone can use the facility as long as they meet one of three criteria.

“Is it business? Is it education? Is it training?” Mills said.

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Consolidated Metco, an international company that makes parts for tractor-trailers, is placing a robotic arm in one of the classrooms where its employees will learn to operate it. The arm is used as a safety measure. It acts as a suction cup and reaches into dangerous machines to save workers from doing so.

The company has a facility in Bryson City and others in North Carolina that will send employees to train at the center.

Before the Regional Business Education and Training Center was built, emergency service workers and judicial court clerks in the westernmost counties had to travel hours away to attend costly training seminars.

In the case of the court clerks and assistant clerks, the closest continuing education classes were held in Marion and only lasted a few hours. But the classes were necessary to perform their job well. The clerks would end up spending more time in the car driving then actually in the class. The new center will allow those courses to be taught in Swain County, which is considerably closer.

“I am excited to no end about this facility,” said Hester Sitton, Swain County’s clerk of court. “We are going to be able to offer training for our clerks of court.”

Swain County is also in talks with Southwestern Community College and Western Carolina University about providing classes at the center.

WCU Chancellor David Belcher spoke at the ribbon cutting about the possible future of the center.

“I find that the potential of this center is just amazing,” Belcher said. “Because of the technology infrastructure here, I feel like this could be a great place for online learning.”

Belcher said that the county, SCC and WCU need to conduct a study to see what types of programming is most needed in Swain County and the surrounding region.

SCC president Don Tomas said that the community college is looking at offering judicial system training in Swain County in addition to the outdoor leadership and fine and cultural arts programs already being taught in the county.

But, he added that SCC will continue looking for courses to offer at the Regional Business Education and Training Center.

A multitude of thanks were showered on the Varner sisters, who grew up in Swain County and sold the property to the county for the center.

“This is another way of our family paying back the community,” said Margaret Varner.

Many of the speakers at last week’s ribbon cutting also thanked County Manager Kevin King for being the driving force behind getting the center built.

“This one guy wouldn’t quit,” said Commissioner David Monteith.

The idea for the project first came up about four years ago. The Varner sisters approached the county about building the center, a place where SCC could host various programs. But at the time, the county could not afford to spend any money on the venture so the idea died.

In the end, the county did not have to spend any taxpayer funds — if you don’t count the hours put in by county staff.

“When Duke Energy needed a substation, we kind of approached them about a partnership to develop this,” King said. “It was just something I had approached the commissioners about, ‘Hey, we might could make this work out.’”

Duke Energy gave the county a $1.1 million grant to help purchase the property and pay for the actual construction of the building. In exchange, Duke was able to build a substation at the site as well, which will increase power distribution throughout the county and to Cherokee.

The county was also able to receive several other grants including one for $25,000 from the WNC Community Foundation.

Cindi Woodard, clerk to the Swain County Board of Commissioners, will handle scheduling for the center for now.

“We are hoping that our biggest headache is too much demand and not enough space,” Mills said.

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